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A Debate on Geoengineering: Should We Deliberately “Hack” Planet Earth to Combat Climate Change?

StorySeptember 14, 2018
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As California Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit is underway in San Francisco, we look at one of the more controversial solutions to climate change: geoengineering. Sometimes called “climate manipulation,” geoengineering involves the deliberate altering of the Earth to decrease the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Such proposals are already being explored by government agencies, scientists and businesses around the world. Supporters of geoengineering endorse radical ways to manipulate the planet, from spraying aerosols with sulfur particles into the stratosphere, to scrubbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But critics say these “techno-fixes” do nothing to address the root causes of climate change, and worse, can be dangerous for the Earth. We host a debate between Gopal Dayaneni, board member of the ETC Group and a founding member of the Climate Justice Alliance, and David Keith, professor of applied physics at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and professor of public policy in the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also the founder of Carbon Engineering, a company developing technology to capture CO2 from ambient air.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from San Francisco, where California Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit has officially begun. We end the show with a look at one of the more controversial solutions to climate change: geoengineering. Sometimes called climate manipulation, geoengineering involves the deliberate altering of the Earth to decrease the level of greenhouse gas emissions.

While controlling the Earth’s climate system sounds like science fiction, such proposals are already being explored by government agencies, scientists, businesses around the world. Supporters of geoengineering endorse radical ways to manipulate the planet, from spraying aerosols with sulfur particles into the stratosphere to scrubbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is environmental activist David Keith explaining the idea.

DAVID KEITH: This geoengineering idea, in its simplest form, is basically the following. You could put fine particles—say, sulfuric acid particles, sulfates—into the upper atmosphere, the stratosphere, where they’d reflect away sunlight and cool the planet. And I know for certain that that will work—not that there aren’t side effects, but I know for certain it will work. And the reason is, it’s been done. And it was done not by us, not by me, but by nature. Here’s Mount Pinatubo in the early ’90s that put a whole bunch of sulfur in the stratosphere, with a sort of atomic bomb-like cloud, and the result of that was pretty dramatic. After that and some previous volcanoes we have, you see a quite dramatic cooling of the atmosphere.

AMY GOODMAN: Critics of geoengineering say these “techno-fixes” do nothing to address the root causes of climate change, and, worse, can be dangerous for the Earth.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Gopal Dayaneni is a board member of the et cetera group, or the ETC Group, a founding member of the Climate Justice Alliance. David Keith is professor of applied physics at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, a founder at Carbon Engineering, a company developing technology to capture carbon dioxide. He’s the author of the book A Case for Climate Engineering.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! David Keith, you’re joining us from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Can you talk about what geoengineering is and why you see it as a climate solution?

DAVID KEITH: I don’t see it as a climate solution. The idea that it’s a solution is nutty. The central thing we have to do is bring emissions to zero. If you don’t do that, you haven’t addressed the root of the problem. It is possible that solar geoengineering—the main thing we work on here—that a combination of emissions cuts and some solar geoengineering might have less climate risks than emissions cuts alone, but I don’t think we know that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, give us some examples of geoengineering.

DAVID KEITH: So, solar geoengineering is the idea—well, geoengineering is a concept that doesn’t mean that much, but solar geoengineering is the idea that humans might deliberately alter the reflectivity of the Earth, as indeed we’re already doing in lots of ways, but do it more deliberately, as a partial offset to some of the risks of accumulating carbon dioxide. But it’s completely true that it doesn’t deal with the problem of emissions, and we have to deal—we have to solve that.

It’s also true that even if we cut emissions to zero, even if we eliminate emissions, we actually don’t solve the climate problem, because the CO2 that we’ve put in there through industrial action, polluters, over centuries, stays in the air for millennia. So, there, in fact, are no magic-bullet simple solutions to climate change. It’s completely incorrect to say that solar geoengineering is a solution, but it’s also incorrect to say that bringing emissions to zero is a solution, because we’ll still have the climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Gopal Dayaneni, talk about geoengineering and your concerns with it.

GOPAL DAYANENI: Sure. I find it interesting that we’re starting off by saying geoengineering doesn’t mean much of anything, when in fact billions of dollars are being invested in it. It’s been mentioned in the IPCC reports as a potential solution or intervention. I think it’s pretty easy to understand what geoengineering is. It’s the intentional disruption of Earth’s systems, either in the biosphere, the oceans or the atmosphere, in order to supposedly, in this case, mitigate climate to some degree.

The real issue here isn’t about whether it works or whether it doesn’t work or whether we need it. You know, it’s actually about what it represents as a social process in the moment that we’re in, in trying to address the root causes of climate change. Every single guest you’ve had on the show so far today who comes from social movements, from Eriel, who mentioned geoengineering at the end of her piece, to all of the folks who were part of the action yesterday, all recognize that this kind of investment, research is a signal to the world that these kinds of “techno-fixes” are part of how we’re going to address climate change, and it doesn’t get at what are the root causes, which are: We have to reduce emissions at the source; we need to restore control and democracy and sovereignty to communities; we need to respect the rights of indigenous peoples and the rights of Mother Earth; we need to actually address reparations for the climate damage that’s been done to this point, both in the Global South; and we need to actually transition not from corporate solutions that are based in the same petrochemical industry that got us here, but to energy democracy solutions, where communities have control over the decisions that affect their energy future.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Keith, your response?

DAVID KEITH: I’m not aware of any single investment—investment, that is, a corporate investment—in solar geoengineering of any significance. That billion-dollar figure is made up from whole cloth. It’s just false. And that’s not uncommon; ETC often makes up numbers because it’s effective to do. But it isn’t true. And it is absolutely true that we have to bring emissions to zero and that that involves fighting corporate interests. Totally true.

Most of the people actually working on solar geoengineering research, in fact, are environmental scientists with long track records of opposing fossil fuels. And so, the idea this is some kind of corporate thing is just—it’s convenient, it’s effective, but it isn’t true. And most importantly, this gentleman failed to address the fact that even when you bring emissions to zero, you still have the CO2 in the atmosphere. And yes, I’d like to see more democracy. I’d love to see a reform of democracy, and we should. But that won’t magically remove the CO2 from the atmosphere.


GOPAL DAYANENI: Actually, what’s interesting is—I mean, we had Eriel on just a moment ago, but, you know, Carbon Engineering, the company that David Keith started, is obviously financed by somebody who many of the listeners and viewers of Democracy Now! will know: Murray Edwards, who is a tar sands tycoon. This is actually part of the same fossil fuel petrochemical industry suite of interventions that are constantly being proposed.

And to separate solar radiation management from carbon sequestration and storage is what David would like to do, because he’d like to say, “Oh, we’re just doing these small experiments in Arizona to test out whether solar radiation management has a potential future.” But the reality is that what we’re doing is, when those balloons go up to test his solar radiation management theories, it is doing more—it is sending a signal that we are going to need to engage in these high-cost, high-energy, corporate techno-solutions.

I mean, Carbon Engineering, the company that he started, it explicitly states that this is about intellectual property. That’s their market value. This is not actually about communities having control over the resources required to actually address not just the mitigation and not just the reducing of emissions, but also to have control over their own resilience in the face of coming climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Keith, can you explain the solar radiation experiment in Arizona?

DAVID KEITH: Well, no, I want to address those comments directly. So, Carbon Engineering is a company, so, yes, it cares about intellectual property, actually with investment and very close connection to the Suquamish Tribe and to the local community at Suquamish and the Suquamish Nation.

Carbon Engineering is trying to make carbon-neutral fuels for transportation as a way to decarbonize, say, shipping or airplane travel. And that only works with very strong regulations on carbon emissions, and it only works essentially if the oil companies lose. So, yes, it’s true that we had some early investment from Murray Edwards, who absolutely is an oil tycoon, although, in fact, as oil tycoons, relatively liberal. But the point is, Carbon Engineering’s corporate interests, which it definitely has, are in having strong climate policy, because we only would make any money if there was very, very strong constraints.

But also, Carbon Engineering is not actually doing carbon sequestration. Carbon Engineering is doing low-carbon transportation fuels, and that may or may not be a good idea, but it’s basically one of the many ways we might cut emissions. And I can’t see any—I can see that it’s very similar to, say, electric vehicles or hydrogen fuels or biofuels, all of which have some problems, all of which have some advantages. But I don’t see why it’s very tightly linked to solar geoengineering, which is not particularly high energy or high money, has very high risks and uncertainties. These are pretty different things. And it happens to be convenient to mix it up, but I am not hearing reasoned arguments why they’re connected.

GOPAL DAYANENI: Well, first of all, this very much connects to the cap-and-trade conversation that we had earlier and the offsets conversation. Carbon Engineering, this idea—and David has written about this extensively—both carbon sequestration and also this bioenergy to carbon capture, these are all based on the assumption that we’re going to continue to commoditize the atmosphere, that we’re going to continue to put a price on carbon, that we’re going to continue to trade and have offsets and all of these things. And that is fundamentally the problem.

At the foundation of the difference here is whether we understand this crisis as a crisis of social inequality and ecological erosion and the erosion of democracy, or whether we understand this crisis simply as about the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. And for all the time and resources and energy that we spend actually focusing on this fantastical, magical thinking, as Naomi talks about in This Changes Everything, we are not spending our time dealing with the root causes of the crisis, which is what every other guest on your program today from our social movements has been talking about.

And I think that’s really the thing here. It’s like we could be spending our time and energy actually talking about and focusing on the root causes of the crisis, as opposed to engaging in these deadly distractions about these fantastical ideas that we are going to do large-scale environmental modification of the planet. And we can talk about these as small little experiments; what they are is they represent a mind shift.

The struggle for climate and climate justice is actually about whether we are going to attack social inequity, environmental destruction and ecological erosion, or whether we’re going to continue business as usual and just pretend that there are other ways out of this. And quite frankly, I think urgency should not enable desperation. I think it’s easy to say, “Well, this is just one of many. This is a suite of solutions. We need everything.” That’s the same thing as all of the above. That is the story of “We need gas as a bridging fuel.”

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Keith?

DAVID KEITH: I’m actually not saying that, and I’ve never said that. So, absolutely true that there’s a crisis of democracy. Part of the reason we, the citizens, haven’t been able to get the kind of climate action we need is failures in our democracy that put too much power associated with fossil fuels that have blocked action. I couldn’t agree more. And I’ve taken personal risks, up to coming close to losing my job at University of Calgary, when I called out oil companies for corruption at that university. So I’ve worked, in fact, on cutting emissions and opposing fossil fuels for decades. So the idea that somehow it’s this dichotomy between “it’s all about democracy, and we just need to focus on that” and “we should just do business as usual and make capitalism happy,” that’s just fuzzy thinking. So, yes, there’s a challenge in democracy. It’s central. If we can’t get broad, collective agreement, control, from the people, that allows us to force emissions cuts, we won’t solve the problem. That’s true.


DAVID KEITH: It’s also true that we have to make decisions—go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have five seconds. David Keith, I hope we can do Part 2 of this discussion—it’s clearly an important one—but we can’t do it right here. David Keith of Harvard University, Gopal Dayaneni of ETC Group and Climate Justice Alliance.

That does it for our week here in San Francisco. Special thanks to our crew here: Neil Tanner, Conrad Slater, Jack Morris, Alan Filippi, Norbert Lee, Farah Munawar, John Jordan and Felicia Cuarta.

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